Electrical Panel Replacement (Podcast)

In this podcast, Tim Kent talks about electrical panel replacement. He explains why homeowners replace their panels. Then, he outlines the difference between upgrading your panel vs. upgrading your service, and he outlines when homeowners may want to do both. Finally, he explains what to expect if you decide to upgrade your electrical panel.

John Maher: Hi, I am John Maher. I’m here today with Tim Kent. Tim is the Electrical Field Supervisor with N.E.T.R. Inc., a heating and cooling company in Massachusetts. Today we’re talking about electrical panel replacements. Welcome, Tim.

Tim Kent: Thank you, John. Thank you for having me.

Why Do Homeowners Replace Their Electrical Panels?

John: Sure. So Tim, why might a homeowner need an electrical panel replacement?

Tim: Mostly panel replacements happen for two reasons. One, they need more capacity in their panel. They want to add some new circuits or some new appliances, and they just don’t have the room.          

The second most common is, somehow, some way, either water has gotten into that panel or even started to basically corrode and rust away the internal parts of the panel. Sometimes we do see some mice that have somehow gotten into the panel, and basically are eating wires away and chewing stuff inside the panel.

The most common stuff I see is wanting more space and definitely the rust. Water finds a way to get in everywhere no matter how much you seal it up. Every so often it tends to find a way. The littlest of cracks that can happen and water will find its way into your panel. Once water touches that panel, it needs to be replaced. It’s just going to corrode and start to deteriorate even if you dry it off. Or even if you seal up that hole or wherever it was coming from or fix it, once water’s already been in there, it’s just going to rust and corrode all the metal in there.

Upgrading Your Electrical Panels Vs. Upgrading Your Electrical Service

John: Okay. Yeah. So explain a little bit of the difference between upgrading your electrical panel and upgrading your electric service. What are the differences there? And then if you are upgrading your service, is it good to have the panel replaced at the same time?

Tim: So yeah, so the biggest difference is the electrical service will give you more power. The panel, when you replace the panel, it only gives you more space or you’re maybe doing a fix, because the panel got damaged in some way. Replacing the panel does not, even if you get more space, it does not give you more power. It does not mean you can add a bunch of high draw appliances on that if it wasn’t already enough to begin with.

The service upgrade basically allows you to do that, and upgrades the whole panel and the outside and gives you more actual power. If you’re getting a service upgrade, you basically are forced to upgrade your panel. It kind of comes as a package. You can’t have a 100 amp-rated panel on a 200 amp service.

John: I see. So the panels come with a certain rating for a certain amount of service, and then if you’re upgrading the service that makes that panel not work with it any more.

Tim: Correct. There are certain ways where you can maybe have a 200 amp rated panel on a 100 amp service. If you follow proper code procedures, that’s fine, but you can always have what we call fuse- or breaker-less power with a higher rated panel. But you can’t go the other way around, because if you have 200 amps that is allowed to come into your home, but your panels only rated for 100, there’s a very good chance that you’re going to go over the 100 mark and then things are going to start to malfunction in your panel and cause issues as that was only tested for the 100 amp power mark, not 200.

Upgrading Service and Panels in Stages

John: So the only time you’d come into contact with something like that would just be like, say you were upgrading from 60 and you didn’t really need to have 200 amp service, but maybe in the future you might need to, maybe you would put in a 200 amp panel, and then upgrade only to a 100 amp or service or something like that, knowing that in the future I might upgrade to the 200 and you just want to sort of future-proof it or something like that.

Tim: Yeah, exactly. So as long as you protect the wiring at 100 amps, which is what’s coming in, you can put in a 200 amp panel, and then basically let’s say the customer doesn’t have the money to operate the full service, so they do it in two stages. They fix the panel because maybe it’s an unforeseen issue, like a damaged panel that they didn’t know was damaged.

John:  Then, they’re in that rush that you were talking about before.

Tim: Yeah, exactly. An unforeseen expense. So they kind of say, okay, well we have to replace the panel, but I do want 200 at some point, so let’s just put a 200 amp panel in and then what we can do is we can kind of fuse it at 100 amps, and then that basically still protects the 100 amp rated wire and the rest of the 100 amp rated service as well.

Installation Process for Electrical Service Panels

John: Okay. What are the typical steps that are involved in getting an electrical service panel installed and how long does that take?

Tim: So, panels are definitely quicker than a full service upgrade. They tend to still, I tend to say they still take a day, right? It’s still going to be a day without power. Sometimes they finish sooner, but it’s just planned for a day. Day meaning about eight hours. Basically, it’s the same steps as getting a service upgrade.

Someone comes out there, they’ll look at it, they’ll give you a price. If you agree with the price, they come, they do the work. We’ll pull permits, install your new panel and then get the panel inspected and then basically you’re done. But it is about a day with no power.

So definitely plan accordingly. If you have to work, like I said, if you’re working from home, you need the wifi. If you can use a hotspot, that’s fantastic, but if not, then maybe go to a neighbor’s or plan, maybe have a sick day that day, and plan on just being without power for that day.

New Features on Electrical Panels

John: Okay. Are there any safety features or other technology advancements that have happened in electrical panels, maybe smart features or things like that that you’re seeing more and more with panels?

Tim: So there’s actually quite a few. The typical circuit breaker that people know basically has gotten quite a few upgrades in the past 20 years. So they make kind of what’s called an arc fault circuit breaker, otherwise known as AFCIs. What they designed to do is prevent fires in your home. They kind of will shut off before something can cause a fire.

So like, an arc, think of it like a mini lightning bolt inside your wall that can jump off of a faulty outlet, a faulty switch and find something that is combustible and cause a fire. These breakers are designed to basically, before that happens, shut down. So that arc never gets to starting a fire. You also can do what we call, what’s been around for quite a while now, but ground fault circuit interrupters, they’re basically the breaker form of those outlets that you see basically in your bathroom or on your kitchen outlets that have the test/reset buttons on them.

They’re basically breaker form. One benefit is you finally don’t have to, if you don’t like the look of the test/reset buttons being on your nice new kitchen countertop, you can put a breaker instead and it does the same thing as protection, but what it also does is protects that entire circuit instead of just that outlet and what it’s plugged into.

So definitely the main aspect of what the National Electrical Code Committee has been trying to do is prevent fires. And the manufacturers have been kind of inventing ways to prevent electrical fires or at least minimize them as best they can. So those are some of the two breakers that have kind of done that.

Then you get into the smart breakers. So things have come out, there’s now smart panels, so the whole panel has basically breakers in them that you can control from your phone. You can shut off, turn off, you can see how much power they’re drawing. You can basically, okay, my heat comes on at this time, how much power does it draw, or my AC. And you can figure out basically there’s probably as many more features, but you can do anything from the app or a phone and it tells you your panel health. And those will come out not just breaker form, but there’s now full manufacturers that make what they call smart panels that basically these breakers go into, which is kind of the way the world’s going to go. I think a lot of the other standard manufacturers are now going to catch up with making their own smart breakers for their panels.

Smart Panels Help You Optimize Electrical Usage

John: And I’d imagine with a smart panel like that, if you can see how much each one of the circuits in your home is drawing, that could help you to maybe optimize your electrical usage in your home.

Tim: Yep. It definitely can definitely help you to avoid maybe tripping or an overload. You can see how much it’s drawing, if it’s drawing over what it’s allowed, you can basically get ahead of that. They do help with diagnostics as well for electricians in some forms as well.

The smart breakers are fairly new technology. Smart outlets and switches have kind of been around for a long time. The whole panel and the breaker part is a relatively new kind of area that’s just kind of in its infancy right now.

One of the other features, if you’re replacing a panel, Massachusetts code mandates that we have to put in a whole home surge protector, and this surge protector will protect everything that’s connected to your panel. So everyone thinks of, oh, well my TVs have gotten relatively cheap now, so if they go, I’ll replace it, or my laptop or computer is owned by the company I work for, so I don’t really care what happens to it.

But a lot of people forget about their heating system and the little microchips that they have on that. And they also have, if they do have smart switches, all those come with chips that can be burned out. There’s a lot of fragile electrical equipment that is susceptible to surges if not properly protected. Even in your stoves and your dryers, your washing machines, all of those have circuit boards in them. All of those can go with a surge and those get… That starts to add up quick.

John: Right. All of those appliances that used to just be straight electric appliances with no electronics in them now all have electronics in them.

Tim: Yeah. You can’t buy anything without some form of electronics even if you buy the basic model.

Planning for an Electrical Panel Replacement

John: What’s involved in the planning process for an electrical panel replacement, in terms of what size it has to be and the location that it has to be placed in? Do you sometimes have to move where the panel is mounted in order to upgrade to a larger size electrical panel? Are there permits that you have to pull, things like that?

Tim: So yeah, definitely. There’s always permits for doing any type of panel upgrade. A lot of the planning process goes with your home. There are certain codes that basically talk about how far away it has to be from a water pipe, how much working space or clearance you have to have in front of that panel.

Now, maybe back in the day when your panel was put in, these rules weren’t there, because obviously the rules have changed and they adapt over time. And, basically now your grandfathered-in panel that you want to replace is no longer grandfathered-in because we’re replacing it. So we have to look out of where your panel placement is. Is there a water pipe going right above it? If that breaks, we don’t want the panel to get soaked, or is there oil lines or gas lines or maybe certain homes have their gas meters inside their homes. We have to make sure we’re a certain distance away from that as well.

And all of that can increase the cost a lot. If we have to relocate the panel especially, there’s a lot more cost involved than that. And basically, if we have to get the local inspector’s approval and what he wants and how he wants it to be, that can increase cost as well.

So there’s a lot to look out for, basically, even as a simple panel, hey, I just want this replaced. It’s been there for years, why can’t I just put it back there? We understand it’s been there for a long time and you’ve had no problems with it, but unfortunately the rules that we have to follow have changed since that panel was put in, and we have no choice but to follow them.

Even if certain electricians agree with some of them or not, it doesn’t matter. As a licensed electrician, this is the rule, you have to follow it. And as a homeowner, unfortunately, you don’t really have a choice in that. Even though it’s your home, you still have to bring it up to today’s standards.

Additional Considerations When Replacing Electrical Panels

John: Are there additional upgrades that can be done at the same time, or maybe even that should be done at the same time as the electrical panel upgrades, such as adding a sub panel or adding some dedicated circuits, maybe, for some new appliances that I’m adding to the home, like heating and air conditioning units or something like that, or smart home integration.

Tim: So a lot of the common stuff that we do, because one of the main reasons why we are changing out your panel in the first place is because we’re adding new circuits to it. Then, I always put in something with more space, so you can basically go up.

I usually put in the biggest panel that is made, so usually it gives you about 10 extra circuits, which gives you some play. Surge protection is a great upgrade to add that has to go in now anyways. But it’s still always a great upgrade. You can upgrade to those arc fault breakers or the GFCI breakers. Even though it’s not code-mandated to do so, it is a good thing to have on your home to protect your home from fires or anyone getting electrocuted or anything like that.

Smart breakers, it really depends on what type of panel you’re putting in. There’s a company called Lutron that makes a smart panel. There’s a bunch of other companies, the major brands are just starting to get into smart breakers, smart stuff. They haven’t really, to my knowledge anyways, they haven’t come out with their own panel set up, or their own interchangeable breakers to just pop in.

If you want something to be smart, I’m sure that’s down the pipeline. But definitely if you wanted a smart panel, we could definitely provide you with a smart panel when we’re changing it out.

Contact N.E.T.R. About Electrical Panel Replacement

John: All right, well that’s really great information, Tim. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Tim: Thank you very much.

John: And for more information, you can visit the N.E.T.R. website at netrinc.com or call 781-933-NETR. That’s 781-933-NETR.